Bhakti Movements in South India


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Prelims: History of India

Mains: India Culture-Salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times

The Emergence of Religious Movements in South India

The religious movements in South India emerged due to several political, socio-economic and religious factors.

  • Jainism and Buddhism: The South Indian bhakti saints were critical of Buddhists and Jains who enjoyed a privileged status at the courts of South Indian kings at that time.
  • Revivalism: The South Indian bhakti movement is considered the revivalism of Hinduism.
  • Authority of Brahmanas: The poet-saints resisted the authority of the orthodox Brahmans by making bhakti accessible to all without any caste and sex discrimination.
  • Rise of Vaishyas and Sudras: The growing classes of urban artisans were attracted to the religious movements because of their egalitarian ideas, as they were not satisfied with the low status in the traditional Brahmanical hierarchy.
  • Simplicity: Most of the followers of religious movements were illiterate. Therefore, the language of Acharyas, other than Sanskrit, was simple to understand.
  • Settled Population: From the sixth century onwards, expanding and integrating various peasant settlements in the river valleys and transforming the tribal population into settled peasant communities provided a base for new state systems.  


Bhakti Movement in South India

As a religious concept, Bhakti means devotional surrender to a personally conceived Supreme God to attain salvation.

  • Bhakti Movement had its genesis in southern India in the 7th and 12th centuries CE.
  • Bhakti evolved from a religious tradition to a popular movement in South India. It was founded on ideas of religious equality and broad-based social justice.
  • The origin of this doctrine has been traced to both the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions of ancient India and various scriptures such as the Gita.
  • The Shaiva Nayanar saints and Vaishnava Alvar saints of South India spread the doctrine of bhakti among different sections of the society irrespective of caste and sex during the period between the seventh and the tenth century.
  • They disregarded the austerities preached by the Jains and the Buddhists and preached that personal devotion to god was the only means of salvation.
  • The two main pillars of the bhakti tradition are ‘love’ and ‘meditation’. The love is for God, which is ecstatic in nature and symbolises a feeling of bliss or unparalleled happiness.
    • The idea being conveyed here is to be lost in the love of God as though he were beloved.
  • There are two kinds of meditation in bhakti, these are:
    • Saguna bhakti: One meditates on God as a separate being through disciplined practices. According to it, God has a distinct form, character, and positive attributes and manifests himself in incarnations such as Rama and Krishna.
    • Nirguna bhakti: God and self are merged, and little distinction is made between self and God.



  • It's a personalised religious attitude that focuses on intense devotion to a single god, Vishnu.
  •  Alvars are twelve, including a woman saint, Andal.
  • The hymns are collectively known as Nalayira Divya Prabandham (collection of 4000 Tamil verses).
  • The Alvars condemned Nayanars in an attempt at the superiority of their God.
  • Nammalvar, one of the Alvars (seventh century AD), developed the notion of prapatti, complete trust and surrender, to be developed in Srivaisnava theology from the twelfth century onwards.
  • Some of the Alvars also used various images from day-to-day life and connected them to the various Vaishnava myths.
    • For instance, Periyalvar (ninth century AD) extensively used the mother and child images connecting them to Yashoda and Krishna. 



  • It's a personalised religious attitude that focuses on intense devotion to a single god, Shiva.
  • Nayanars were also known as Samayacharyas and were sixty-three in number, including a woman saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar.
  • The hymns are collectively known as Tevaram.
  • The Nayanars condemned Alvars in an attempt to be superior to their God.
  • The Nayanars conceptualised Shiva as the warrior god, fighting battles and warding away evils. 
  • The local roots of Shiva were highlighted by associating his achievements with specific sites, in this case, primarily the Kaveri valley, which was the centre of Chola power.


Themes of Bhakti in the Nayanar and Alvar Hymns 

The hymns elaborated upon specific ideas which had never evolved earlier. These ideas became the basis for the future religious developments of both communities. These ideas were:

  • A highly personalised religious attitude focused on an individual’s relationship with god.
  • The hymns projected a strong sense of community. Both were addressing primarily a group of devotees and attempting to impress upon them through ideas of devotion.
  • The hymns of the early saints reflected hostility towards the ritual dominance of the Vedic Brahmanas. 
    • The saints criticised this monopoly and strongly advocated for equality.
  • However, not everyone completely rejected the caste system. The only place where we can find a direct rejection of caste is in the hymns of Tirunavukkaracar (Appar), a saint who followed the Shaiva tradition.
  • The notion of pilgrimage further contributed to the sense of belonging to a community.
    • The emergence of the local cult centres in the hymns charted out sacred geography for the community and marked the beginning of the concept of pilgrimage.


Bhakti and South Indian Acharyas

When the popularity of the bhakti movement in South India was on the wane, the doctrine of bhakti was defended at the philosophical level by a series of brilliant Vaishnava Brahman scholars (acharyas). Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya played roles in the revival.

Adi Shankaracharya

The person who made Vedic philosophy more popular was Adi Shankaracharya. He tried to give a new direction to Vedic philosophy with the help of an organisation known as Matha. 

  • He found four mathas- Badrinath, Jagannath Puri, Dwarka and Sringeri. 
  • His philosophy is known as Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism). It is also known as the philosophy of monism or oneness.
  • His famous quotes include, “Brahma Satyam Jagat Mithya Jivo Brahmatra Naparaha”, meaning, “The Absolute Spirit is the reality, the world of appearance is Maya. 
  • Adi Shankaracharya wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, Brahmasutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Other works of him include Upadesh Shastri, Vivek Chudamani, and Bhaja Govindum Stotra.
  • Advaita Vedanta: Shankaracharya expounded that the ultimate reality is one; it is the Brahman.
    • The means of knowledge, according to Advaita, are six and they are
      • perception (pratyaksa),
      • inference (anumana),
      • comparison (upamana),
      • postulation (arthapatti),
      • nonapprehension (anupalabdhi) and 
      • testimony (shabda).
    • Advaita Vedanta teaches three stages of truth. 
      • The first stage is the transcendental or Paramarthika, in which Brahman is the only reality and nothing else. 
      • The second stage is the pragmatic or Vyavaharika, in which both Jiva (living creatures and individual souls) and God are true, and the material world is also true. 
      • The third and last stage is the apparent or Prathibhasika, in which material world reality is false, like mistaking a rope for a snake.
    • According to Vedanta philosophy, ‘Brahman is true, the world is false and self, and Brahman is not different.
    • He also believes that there is no distinction between Brahman and the self. 
      • Ramanuja was another well-known Advaita scholar.

Ramanujacharya (1017-1137)

He gave philosophical justification for bhakti. He tried to balance orthodox Brahmanism and popular bhakti, which was open to all.

  • He brought the treasure of Vedic literature to the doorsteps of the common man.
  • He opposed Shankara's mayavada and advocated the theory of Vishista Advait (qualified monism). He also established the Shrivaishnava sect.
  • He became the preceptor of the Bhakti movement and the source for all other Bhakti Schools of thought.
    • He inspired mystic poets like Kabir, Meerabai, Annamacharya, Bhakta Ramdas, Thyagaraja and many others. 
  • He initiated the concept that Nature and her resources, like Water, Air, Soil, Trees etc., are sacred and should be protected from pollution.
  • Sri Ramanujacharya wrote nine scriptures (the Navrathnas).
    • Vedartha Sangraha: A treatise presenting the tenets of Visishtadvaita, a reconciliation of different conflicting srutis.
    • Sri Bhashya: A detailed commentary on the Vedanta Sutras. 
      • Sri Bhashyam is Sri Ramanuja’s magnum opus, which is the greatest commentary on Brahma Sutras.
    • Gita Bhasya: A detailed commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.
    • Vedanta Dipa: A brief commentary on the Vedanta Sutras.
    • Vedanta Sara: Another brief commentary on the Vedanta Sutras meant for beginners.
    • Saranagati Gadya: A prayer of complete surrender to the lotus feet of Lord Srimannarayana.
    • Sriranga Gadya: Manuals of self surrender to Lord Vishnu.
    • Shri Vaikuntha Gadya: Describes Shri Vaikuntha-loka and the position of the liberated souls.
    • Nitya Grantha: A short manual that guides the devotees about daily worship and activities.


Madavacharya was a Vaishnavite Bhakti philosopher. Like Ramanuja. He did not dispute the orthodox Brahmanical restriction of the Vedic study.

  • He believed that bhakti provided the Sudras with an alternate avenue of worship.
  • His philosophical system was based on the Bhagavad Purana. He is also believed to have toured North India.
  • He gave Dvaita philosophy (Atma cannot join Paramatma)
    • The Dvaita School sprung more as a reaction against the system of Advaita and Vishishtadvaita. Madhvacharya interpreted the Upanishadic statements that convey difference as the primary teaching of the scriptures. 
    • The main objection of Dvaita about the Advaitic standpoint is the negligence of common experience and description of an attributeless reality. 
    • Madhvacharya, though he agrees with Ramanuja, is not convinced by the theistic approach of Ramanuja. Thus, Madhvacharya formulated a system of dualism, maintaining differences and enhancing the concept of bhakti.
    • Madhvacharya refuted the Mayavada theory of Shankaracharya in his system of Advaita.
      • He upheld that the world is not a bundle of illusory objects created by Maya and Avidya. For him, the world is real but, of course, dependent on the Brahman.
      • In the same way, Madhavacharya differed from Shankaracharya, who said that the individual self is not different from the supreme self. The identity of the Jiva and Brahman is somehow established in Advaita Vedanta. In Dvaita Vedanta, for Madhvacharya, Jiva (soul) is different from Brahman and not identical with Him.
    • In the same way, Madhvacharya also rejected the claims of qualified monism. Without reconciling with the Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya, the philosophy of Madhvacharya held that that cit (spirit) and acit (matter) are different realities from Brahman and do not form His body (sarira).
    • Thus, the concept of difference (bheda) is central to the philosophical system of Madhva. That is the reason one can call his philosophy pluralistic. 


Importance of Religious Movements in South India

  • Spiritualism: It evoked shared religiosity, direct emotional and intellection of the divine, and the pursuit of spiritual ideas without the overhead of institutional superstructures.
  • Right to preach: The Brahmans had to accept the right of the ‘low-caste’ to preach, to have access to bhakti as a mode of worship and even to the Vedas.
  • Equality: The South Indian bhakti movement, in its heydays, succeeded in championing the cause of religious equality.
  • Rise of saints: The bhakti movement in the south led to the rise of important saints like Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya and their philosophies.
  • Spread of ideas: Eventually, the south Indian bhakti spread to various regions of India, awakening the masses and even changing its ideas like in monotheistic bhakti.
  • Assimilation: After the movement reached its climax in the 10th century, it was gradually assimilated into the conventional Brahmanical religion.



Previous Year Questions (PYQs)


Q) Evaluate the nature of the Bhakti Literature and its contribution to Indian culture. (2021)




Q)  The world’s second tallest statue in sitting pose of Ramanuja was inaugurated by the Prime Minister of India at Hyderabad recently. Which one of the following statements correctly represents the teachings of Ramanuja?

(a) The best means of salvation was devotion.

(b) Vedas are eternal, self-existent and wholly authoritative.

(c) Logical arguments were meant for the highest bliss.

(d) Salvation was to be obtained through meditation.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Q)  Under which dynasty Religious Movements flourished in India?

Various dynasties patronised movements like Bhakti Movement. In the south early Bhakti Movement got support from Pallavas, and later Shaiva and Vaishnava Movements flourished under Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and Chutiyas.


Q)  What are the similarities between Bhakti and Sufi Movement?

The interaction between the Bhakti and Sufi saints impacted Indian society. The Sufi theory of Wahdat-al-Wujud (Unity of Being) was remarkably similar to that in the Hindu Upanishads. Also, both tried to reform the orthodoxy in their respective religions.